Zach Niles, the 34-year-old co-director of the film Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, has precious little experience behind the camera. He works in the music business, doing odd jobs for A-list rock acts such as Paul McCartney and Madonna. His résumé hardly resembles that of a documentary filmmaker, humanitarian or sub-Saharan vagabond, but he’s recently begun to fit all those descriptions pretty accurately.
The subject of Niles’ critically and commercially lauded documentary is Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, an 11-member group of refugees who play a mix of reggae and traditional West African music with passion for their people and homeland. The film made its Montana premiere at last year’s Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, and contains all the good stuff—their music is a dash of ’70s funk, a hardcore devotion to laid-back Caribbean rhythms and an intricate layering of electric guitars—as well as the realistic depictions of lives nearly destroyed by civil war. The band members’ personal stories are heartbreaking, and yet they are more interested in inspiring hope than guilt.
Niles and co-filmmaker Banker White started with a desire to tell individual Africans’ stories. White had a background in the arts, but neither had experience as filmmakers. Niles had never even picked up a video camera. Both traveled throughout the continent while in college, but their experiences conflicted with what Americans knew from watching television. The two found an incredible sense of humanity among Africans, while their American friends saw, for the most part, people who hated each other for reasons they didn’t understand. Hollywood’s take on Sierra Leone (the film Blood Diamond) wasn’t much help either.
The directors needed a way to connect such disparate cultures. Sierra Leoneans had seen their homes invaded. They’d been at war since the early ’90s. In the decade of violence that sent innocent families into neighboring Guinea, Americans had only a vague understanding of what was going on. For Sierra Leoneans, the battleground was their backyard. For us, it was buried behind the front pages of newspapers.
Then Niles and White had an idea to attract Americans to the refugees’ stories.
“We’re both musicians,” says Niles in a recent telephone interview from Vermont. “So it seemed pretty natural. I find music to be one of those universal communication devices. We had the idea of refugee musicians, the idea of these people being displaced from their culture. Music plays such a huge role there. It’s a religion.”
Niles and White e-mailed U.N. official Alphonse Munyaneza, a Rwandan refugee and a musician. They told him they were looking for African musicians to be the subjects of their documentary. Munyaneza was enthusiastic and organized trips to refugee camps in Guinea, where many Sierra Leoneans lived.
The duo’s tactic was to show up, play some songs of their own and hope to attract a crowd. Eventually they knew they’d find the right musicians.
“We organized it a bit through the U.N.,” Niles recalls. “But really, if you got three white kids from America coming in with a bunch of equipment and guitars and setting up amplifiers, it won’t take long for people to notice. Truth is, there’s not a lot going on in refugee camps, so any diversion was welcome.”
It wasn’t until they’d traveled to eight refugee camps that Niles and White found their band. They were about to give up when they met a stranger who took them to a mud hut where guys were singing and strumming. It was the All Stars.
The meeting was serendipitous. Apart from a group of elderly blind drummers who didn’t exactly fit the bill, the filmmakers had nothing. But when they met charismatic singer Reuben Koroma, the film’s direction became obvious. Says Niles: “[The All Stars] knew what they wanted more than we knew what we wanted.”
Niles’ hunch about music uniting people despite unbelievable obstacles was right. Koroma had lived in refugee camps with his wife for nine years, never leaving Sierra Leone or Guinea. Pre-civil war, he played music professionally for 20 years. To keep it up despite leaving home—indefinitely—is testimony to the power of music to sustain people.
At this point, it’s done more than sustain Koroma and his bandmates. It’s made them international stars. Niles and White brought the All Stars to the United States in 2005 to play at the South by Southwest Film Festival, and the film, which was picked up by PBS, brought the band the kind of attention that American acts could hardly dream of. The All Stars count Paul McCartney, Angelina Jolie and Keith Richards among its supporters. And the group has been on tour for nearly two years straight. They play Missoula’s Wilma Theatre for the first time Tuesday, Feb. 26, at 7:30 p.m.
The directors may not have expected such an overwhelming reception for the band, but All Stars frontman Koroma handles it as if he’d been waiting his whole life for the opportunity.
“It’s something he’s thought a lot about,” White says, speaking from his home in San Francisco. “He understands the importance of what he’s doing.”
The documentary film, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, screens at the Wilma Theatre Friday, Feb. 22, at 7 PM. $8/$5 students and seniors. The band then plays the Wilma Tuesday, Feb. 26, with The Duhks opening, at 7:30 PM. $22 in advance/$25 at the door.